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International partnership for Yemen reports on critical press freedom situation

(ARTICLE 19/IFJ/WAN-IFRA/IFEX) - Sana'a, 16 November 2010 - A coalition of international press freedom and human rights organisations have called on the government of Yemen "to end the practice of extrajudicial trials for journalists" following a hearing for Saba news agency reporter Abdul Ilah Hayder Shae, who is being held in military detention for his work covering Al-Qaeda.

Representatives from the International Partnership for Yemen, who attended Mr Shae's latest hearing before the Specialised Criminal Court on 9 November during a week-long mission to Yemen, called on President Ali Abdullah Saleh "to immediately release Abdul Ilah Hayder Shae and all other journalists being held in detention for carrying out their profession." Mr Shae has denounced the extrajudicial court hearing his case as unconstitutional.

Mr Shae's case is the latest example of the Yemeni authorities' willingness to silence journalists and stifle press freedom in the country. The mission has also warned that international concerns over Yemen's troubled security situation, and the subsequent increased security measures employed by the government, do not justify the repression of press freedom and other fundamental human rights.

The International Partnership for Yemen, a coalition including ARTICLE 19, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Media Support (IMS), and The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), was in Yemen last week to assess the challenges facing media in the country.

The delegation, which met with journalists, editors and publishers, syndicate representatives, human rights lawyers, local non-governmental organisations, media experts, members of parliament, diplomatic representations and government authorities, will release a report detailing the major challenges facing the media in the country. Recommendations on how to strengthen the media sector and ensure its long-term development will be put forward to both the Yemeni government and the international community.

The government has proposed a new Press and Publications Law that has raised serious concerns from journalists, legal professionals and non-governmental organisations due to the punitive measures it contains. Despite calls for amendments, as well as the submission of two alternative drafts by media groups and civil society organisations, it appears that the government is seeking the legal framework to legitimise its continued clampdown on press freedom.

"There is an urgent need for the government to comply with its international obligations on respecting the right to freedom of expression in Yemen," said Cynthia Cárdenas, Legal Advisor for ARTICLE 19. "The current provisions allowing the government to punish media professionals have provoked self-censorship as a common practice and this is directly affecting the quality and quantity of information provided to the public."

The coalition noted that self-censorship is rife amongst the official press, opposition and independent media. Journalists rarely report on the issues that are shaping both Yemen's internal development and its international image – Al-Qaeda, the Southern Movement, the conflict with Houthi rebels in the north, corruption, the rule of President Saleh himself, and the role of tribalism, which affects all aspects of Yemeni society.

This situation is further weakened by the overall lack of media development in Yemen. Serious deficiencies in professional standards and media ethics have led to partisan reporting and editorial irresponsibility. "Free and independent journalism is the vehicle for Yemeni stability and development," said Monir Zaarour, IFJ Middle East and Arab World Coordinator. "There is an urgent need to create the necessary environment for professional and ethical reporting; improved working conditions for journalists and access to professional training are the first steps."

The absence of a strong independent press has created a vacuum that has been filled by official government, opposition, and poor-quality titles. The few quality independent publications face strict licensing regulations, a limited number of printing presses and distribution networks, and a politicised advertising market. One of the few titles to have successfully challenged this reality on a national scale, Al Ayyam, has remained closed since May 2009 following an open confrontation with the government.

"The independent press in Yemen needs strengthening from every perspective," said Mohamed Messaoudi, WAN-IFRA delegate and co-founder of Algerian daily El Watan. "The seeds of an active and engaged independent press are very much present, but the political and economic conditions required are far from being realised."

Antti Kuusi, IMS Country Coordinator for Yemen, said: "The media in Yemen is currently undergoing a period of great change and the international community should urgently assist the country in creating a free and diversified media."

International Federation of Journalists
World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers

Other coalition partner:

International Media Support (IMS)

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